Dana Dawson, Ph.D.
In a 1997 essay entitled “For Openers… an Inclusive Course Syllabus,” Terence Collins argues for the importance of what he calls “full disclosure of the terms of success” – making explicit the “befuddling mores, assumptions, work habits, background knowledge, key terms, or other markers of the academic subculture too often left implicit, inaccessible to outsiders.” By the time most college instructors or TA’s teach a course, lab, studio or recitation for the first time, we have been embedded in the context of higher education for long enough to have forgotten what we found mystifying and incomprehensible in those early days on campus. It’s important to periodically remind ourselves that what is obvious to us needs to be made explicit to our students.
So, in service of encouraging full disclosure of the terms of success and in keeping with a genre of pseudo-journalism I often find irresistible, I present 9 things all professors should tell their students (including their graduate and professional students).
1. It’s normal to feel like an imposter.
What we have come to call “imposter syndrome” is the feeling that we do not have the requisite skills or knowledge to be where we are and that we have somehow tricked others into believing we are something we’re not (Clance and Imes, 1978). Unfortunately, such negative self-beliefs, however unfounded, can have very real effects on learning and persistence (Holden et al., 2021). Reassure your students that it was not an accident that they found their way into your classroom or program. Share experiences you or your colleagues have had with feelings that you don’t belong and how you overcame them.
2. You can ask for things.
You may have noticed that while some students don’t hesitate to ask for extensions, help, accommodations or clarifications, others suffer in silence even where there are supports they could be taking advantage of. Your students may worry that asking for help is a sign that they don’t belong (see #1 above) or feel unsure of what they can ask you about and when it’s appropriate to ask. Make it clear that they can ask, even if the answer may not always be yes.
3. Treat your learning as a never-ending research project.
There is no one-size-fits-all approach to succeeding in one’s studies, so it’s important that our students regularly ask themselves whether what they’re doing is working. Encourage your students to use metacognitive strategies to interrogate their study practices and find opportunities for improvement (McGuire and McGuire, 2015).
4. All students can benefit from academic support.
The best way to ensure students who need academic support will seek it out is to reinforce the idea that all students benefit from academic support (Thomas and Tagler, 2019). Remind your students that even star athletes receive coaching. Academic support will benefit any student and will most benefit those who seek support early and often. Remember that students coming to your campus from high school may be completely unfamiliar with student support centers, mental health counseling centers, student health clinics and other student supports. Transfer and graduate students who are new to your campus might be familiar with such supports but not where to find them. Be sure to include this information in your syllabus and course site, and to bring it up in class.
5. We are all still learning.
Another way of saying this is that there are no bad questions. Be transparent about your on-going learning, for example, research findings that surprised you and changed how you thought about your field or an article, book or conference presentation that taught you something new.
6. What your discipline does and how your course fits into that framework.
When I started my undergraduate degree, I had never heard of Sociology, the discipline I ultimately chose as a major. As soon as I started taking Sociology courses, I knew I was in the right place but struggled to explain to my family what I was going to do with the degree because I wasn’t entirely sure how the content taught in my courses was applied outside of an academic context (or in an academic context, for that matter). Pull back the curtain on your discipline. What are the big questions? Why do they matter? Where does what your course covers fit into the fabric of your discipline? How do people use the skills and knowledge specific to your field in non-academic contexts?
7. What you assume your students already know and can do at the start of your course and what to do if they’re missing any pieces.
Are there concepts, authors, formulas, procedures, methods, etc. that your students should be familiar with? Are there courses you’re assuming they’ve taken? Being explicit about anticipated prior knowledge in a pre-semester questionnaire or early in the semester will give your students an opportunity to fill in gaps sooner rather than later.
8. Preferred communication guidelines.
Do you expect to be called Dr. ___? Would you rather not be called Dr. ___? Do you refuse to read emails that don’t begin with “Dear ___,” and end with a period? Should students nudge you if they haven’t received a response to an email within a couple of days? A couple of weeks? In addition to ensuring you are communicated with in a manner with which you are comfortable, this is an important part of our students’ professional development.
9. You’re glad they’re in your class.
I’m glad you read this far! There. Now didn’t it feel good to read that?
Clance, Pauline Rose, and Suzanne Ament Imes. “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention.” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, vol. 15, no. 3, 1978, pp. 241-247.
Collins, Terence. “For Openers, An Inclusive Course Syllabus.” New Paradigms for College Teaching, edited by W. E. Campbell & K. A. Smith, Interaction Book Company, 1997, pp. 79-102.
Holden, Chelsey L., et al. “Imposter Syndrome Among First- and Continuing-Generation College Students: The Roles of Perfectionism and Stress.” Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 2021. DOI 15210251211019379.
McGuire, Stephanie, Saundra Yancy McGuire, and Thomas Angelo. Teach Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course to Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills, and Motivation. Routledge, 2015.
Thomas, Christopher L., and Michael J. Tagler. “Predicting Academic Help-Seeking Intentions Using the Reasoned Action Model.” Frontiers in Education. Vol. 4. Frontiers Media SA, 2019.
Dana Dawson serves as Associate Director of Teaching and Learning at Temple University’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching